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Editorial: As written, NM sick-leave bill hurts business recovery

As employee advocates point out, the pandemic has laid bare the need for sick leave benefits to keep our workforce and public safe. And as business leaders note, mandatory sick leave adds to operating costs even in the best of times.

So it is essential as our state and businesses work to recover, New Mexico finds compromise both sides can work with. Unfortunately, bill sponsors in the Legislature have yet to look for anything resembling middle ground.

House Bill 20 would require N.M. employers, regardless of size, to provide paid sick leave effective July 1, with no phase-ins. Employees would accrue at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked and could use up to 64 hours of earned leave in a 12-month period, unless the employer offers a higher sick-leave limit. It could be used for “any type of personal or family member illness or health condition or medical care, curative or preventive; for school meetings relative to a child’s disability; for inability to work due to a public health emergency – either because the place of work has been closed or because the employee’s condition might represent a threat to the health of others, for absences due to domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking of the employee or a family member,” according to the bill’s fiscal impact report.

And it includes a hammer of a $1,000 fine or three times the wages they should have paid out, whichever’s greater, “plus actual damages, back pay and benefits, reinstatement, rescission of disciplinary action, litigation costs and attorney fees.”

Bill sponsors including state Reps. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, and Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, say the Healthy Workplaces Act would limit the chances for illness to spread within a workplace. Workers and advocacy groups said the pandemic underscores the need to ensure employees can afford to stay home for health reasons.

They are right. But a variety of business owners and business groups sought some reasonable compromises during a three-hour hearing Feb. 4 – and not one of their common-sense suggestions was incorporated into the amended bill that passed the House Labor, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee with only Democratic support.

Business leaders sought in vain to include several fair amendments – exemption of very small businesses, a tax credit for all other affected small businesses, recognition of existing leave policies that a company may have as an adequate substitute, a delayed/staggered implementation to give businesses of different sizes ample opportunity to prepare, a fair process for resolving leave disputes, and a statewide preemption of local paid leave legislation to avoid a patchwork of differing local ordinances.

But Democrats had no interest in accommodating their concerns and instead sent the bill on a 5-3 party-line vote to the House Judiciary Committee, potentially its last stop before reaching the full chamber.

The Department of Workforce Solutions, which would be charged with record-keeping, reporting and investigating allegations of employer non-compliance, raised 10 “significant issues” in the bill analysis and said it would require eight new positions and $98,000 for technology tools or support staff. The Human Services Department “notes the requirement to allow paid sick leave in keeping with this bill would increase employer cost, but does not estimate how much that cost would be. It is likely that other state government agencies would also see increased costs in similar fashion.” You think?

A coalition of business groups opposing the bill as written says it could be devastating to several hard-hit sectors, from restaurants and bars to small manufacturers struggling to stay open or reopen. There is plenty of room here for a paid-leave bill that protects the workforce and the public without sacrificing our business sector. Thrusting mandatory paid leave on all while the pandemic still rages would ensure there are fewer jobs to return to and give credence to the claim that while New Mexico may be reopening, it’s not open for business.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.





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